View of the hills and castle above Tbilisi on a later visit in 2005
A friend recently lent me his copy of John Baker and Nick Place‘s (Viking, 2020) Stalin’s Wine Cellar about John and Kevin Hopko’s travels to Tbilisi in 1999 to identify Stalin’s wine cellar and subsequently to try to sell some of its more famous wines. I had always wondered what had happened to these wines after my own visit to the cellars a couple of years earlier in 1997. Various later conversations with my Georgian friends had told me some of the story from a Georgian perspective, and so it was fascinating to read this exciting account by the Australians who had endeavoured to release the wines onto the market- described by the publishers (Penguin, 2021) as the Raider’s of the Lost Ark of wine”. Fun to think that I had beaten them to the treasure! I was not, though, interested in buying the wine or trying to sell it through the auction market.
My lasting memory of a serendipitous visit to the Savane winery, was that much of Stalin’s cellar actually seemed to be full of gin bottles! I had walked past the entrance, almost hidden in a wall (top left picture below) several days earlier, and asked friends if it was possible to visit. Miraculously, later in the week I was able to visit, and the pictures below (converted from my old slides/diapositives) show something of what the winery was like. The lower left picture illustrates a rack of bottles, not dissimilar to images shown in John and Nick’s book. My hunch is that Stalin himself probably preferred gin and vodka to fine wines, other than of course wines from his homeland Georgia (the brandy served at the famous Yalta conference in 1945 was the Armenian ArArAt brandy). Alternatively, someone in the intervening half century may simply have used this part of the cellar for storing away gin! I never encountered the famed cellar of Tsar Nicholas II with its very old wines from renowned Bordeaux châteaux, which is reputed to have been split between the Massandra winery just outside Yalta in the Crimea and the Savane winery (Stalin shipped the Tsar’s cellar from Massandra to Tbilisi in 1941 to prevent it falling into German hands, and the wines were then reported to have been returned to Massandra in 1945). In hindsight it would have been fascinating to have asked if I could have explored Savane further. What wines were really there, and might some have been stashed away in Savane, never to be returned to Massandra?). Wines from Massandra were auctioned by Sotheby‘s in 1990, 1991, 2001 and 2004, and I remember being fortunate enough to taste some of the Crimean wines available through these sales, but sadly tasted nothing historical from the Savane winery on any of my visits to Tbilisi.
So many anecdotes could be written about fascinating times spent in parts of the former Soviet Union during the chaos of its disintegration. As for the Savane winery, I was told on good authority that complications in determining the ownership had prevented sales during the latter 1990s and 2000s, but it remains remarkably difficult to find out anything about what really happened (some pictures were shared on Facebook in 2015). Another recollection of that 1997 visit was that despite my best efforts to find wines then being produced locally in Georgia, I was most definitely recommended only to drink the wines that had been shipped and bottled in the Netherlands and Belgium before being returned for consumption in Georgia. The quality of the bottling line shown above might explain some of my hosts’ concerns! However, I am certain that I did not often follow the advice I was given. I so look forward to returning to Georgia again before long, and especially to revisiting the Kakheti vineyards and tasting some of the wonderful wines made there. I still wonder where the Tsar’s wines are now.
Vines overhanging lunch tables on the way to Gelati, 2005